Monday, January 27, 2014
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Jan 2014
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A long time ago, I used to play a little softball. I have a few faded jerseys, soiled championship t-shirts and body scars to prove it. My glove is somewhere. A random softball still appears in my house from time to time. An abused joint occasionally creaks and reminds me of, as fellow Marylander Jim McKay famously said, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Like many rec-league athletes, my pre-game routine included a feverish exit from work, scurrying to a nearby bathroom to imitate Superman’s phone booth wardrobe change and a quick drive to the field. On good days I’d preserve enough time to loosen the hammies and right arm. On bad days (meaning time ran way too short), I’d stretch on the field before the first pitch and limber up the throwing arm by employing Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar move.
Despite my youthful exuberance, the long workday preceding games contributed to different levels of motivation. Sometimes I was ready to go; other times I brought what I had. For important games – rivalries, playoffs and certainly championships – I would incite my competitive juices by playing Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” at volumes my mother wouldn’t appreciate. The song is a personal call to arms – a raw play to basic human emotions. More than the obvious stoke to one’s internal fire, it was (for me anyway) a healthy shot of resolve, an audio elixir to help me cope with the ebb and flow that inevitably occurs during athletic competition. Errors happen. Momentum shifts. Victory can appear likely, then nearly impossible an inning later. Dealing with negativity, maintaining resolve and ultimately overcoming adversity is nearly as fundamental to success as physical talent – in any sport.
The chatter leading up to last Sunday’s NFL conference championships – a heavyweight twin billing featuring New England versus Denver and San Francisco versus Seattle - was predictably a present- and forward-look focused on the games, the personnel and the quarterbacks. I couldn’t help but consider the past and the road each team traveled – or survived - to reach the NFL’s final four.
While the four teams were prohibitive favorites to play deep into January, none arrived at their presumed destination via a tranquil script. Seattle played several games without its starting offensive tackles, absorbed the year-long suspension of star cornerback Brandon Browner and, due to a slow recovery from hip surgery, got virtually nothing from wide receiver Percy Harvin, the team’s key offseason acquisition. San Francisco played 11 games without its best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, who sustained an Achilles tendon injury in the spring, and five games without stud defensive end Aldon Smith while he received treatment for alcohol abuse. Denver’s road to the AFC Championship was as rocky as its famed nearby mountain range. Left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason. Von Miller, the team’s best defensive player, was suspended the first six games and tore up his knee in week 16. And head coach John Fox missed several games while recovering from heart valve replacement surgery.
And then there’s New England. The Patriots were chameleons this season, reinventing themselves weekly based on available personnel. One star tight end - Aaron Hernandez - is incarcerated; the other – Rob Gronkowski – is recovering from knee surgery. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, perhaps their best defensive players, were lost for the season weeks ago. I could go on…and on…and on. Frankly, New England’s presence in the AFC Championship game is arguably the organization’s greatest accomplishment.
Monday, January 13, 2014
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Jan 2014
I wonder if the possibility of vehicular homicide and its accompanying upheaval crossed the inebriated minds of either Henderson or Schoen. It - the loss of human life, the worst of all consequences - should have. It should also occur to the NFL. It should also occur to anyone flirting with the idea of piloting a 2-ton machine down the highway with a belly full of booze. You might make it home okay. You could take out a tree. Or you might kill a child. Is it worth the gamble? What would Bigler’s or Schoen’s answer be? Henderson’s? Yours? Mine? The answer must be no - without exception.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Once upon a time, the University of Maryland football team was led by a lovable coach – Ralph Friedgen – and wore recurring, recognizable and, dare I say, iconic uniforms. That sounds crazy in the era of head coach Randy Edsall, one of those most unlikable people in local sports, and the school’s Under Armour sponsorship, a relationship that has morphed Saturday afternoon football games into fashion shows featuring large young men. So much for those marketing classes I had back in the day that trumpeted the importance of establishing a brand image. The Terps’ “image” has the shelf life of guacamole and their wardrobe is deeper than my wife’s.
If you remember this by-gone, prehistoric time when the Terps proudly and simply wore colors that matched the Maryland flag and helmets that just said, well, “Terps”, (the best things aren’t over-thought), then you might remember the Henderson brothers, E.J. and Erin, playing linebacker at College Park. The Minnesota Vikings drafted E.J. in 2003; little brother Erin followed him to the land of purple Norsemen in 2008. E.J. is now out of league but Erin was a starter for the Vikings this season until a DUI arrest in November. He was profusely apologetic afterwards, cited compelling life-changes, and reclaimed his starting role by season’s end.
On January 1st, Erin Henderson was arrested and charged with DUI – again - after his vehicle made the acquaintance of some very unlucky foliage. He is now simply the latest in a long line of NFL players who have gotten behind the wheel after having far too much to drink. In Henderson’s case, no one was injured. That wasn’t the case when Rams defensive lineman Leonard Little killed Susan Gutweiler in 1998 or when Cowboys DT Josh Brent got liquored up and killed Jerry Brown, his Cowboys teammate, in December 2012.
Whether Henderson has an alcohol addiction, is fighting other personal demons or is just too overcome with professional athlete syndrome, an unofficial affliction that infects the subject with a feeling of invincibility and logic-arresting ego, is unknown. What isn’t in doubt is that the NFL, a league committed to player safety and protecting the image of “The Shield” (the league’s unmistakable logo), has a problem that it apparently doesn’t really mind. The league routinely fines players for “excessive celebration” or wardrobe violations and suspends them for alleged usage of obscure performance-enhancing substances. DUIs, though, often slip quickly through the headlines and the perpetrators, absent a history of behavioral issues, seldom suffer meaningful professional consequences.
Yes, there is a difference between an allegation and a conviction, but the NFL has been extremely heavy-handed in doling out discipline for illegal hits and failed drug tests. But DUIs? Apparently those aren’t as problematic. Personally, I’m more offended by a guy suiting up days after a DUI arrest than I am by a group of players celebrating a touchdown or using deer antler spray.
Over the holidays I caught an ESPN E:60 piece on Southwest Minnesota State basketball coach Brad Bigler. In 2011, Bigler was present when his mother drowned in a kayaking accident. A year later, while traveling for a family get-a-way, a truck driven by Dana Schoen smashed into the Bigler’s vehicle killing Drake, Brad’s infant son. Schoen was intoxicated and his decision to drive impaired snuffed out an innocent young life. Do you know what separates Schoen and Henderson? Dumb luck. That’s it. One harmlessly hit a tree; the other killed a child.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2012
And that’s when the correlation hit me – save for the 9/11 tragedy, sports is the only thing that’s created such beautiful unity amid such diversity. I love sports for that. Here’s my short list of sports moments whose shared euphoria completely drowned out petty differences: storming the field after the last ‘Skins game at RFK Stadium, attending Cal Ripken Jr’s record-tying 2,130th straight game (thanks for ticket, sis) and being in Canton, OH for Art Monk’s and Darrell Green’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What moments made the stranger next to you a good friend? If only they could penetrate our daily lives more often.
An elderly, city-dwelling African American couple, a similarly-aged white couple from the suburbs, two 30-something Gen-Xers from Southern Maryland and a 20-something couple recently transplanted from Indiana walk into an urban bar to share a dinner table and an evening’s entertainment…
What? You haven’t heard this joke? That’s because it’s not a joke. It’s not even fiction. This diverse cast of strangers randomly assembled and, within moments, conversed like best friends. So you’re thinking, “okay, it’s not a joke…but is there at least a punch line?” There is…or at least there’s a point to consider...which I’ll get to later.
From its opening in 1910, Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater was fortunately (because it existed at all) and unfortunately (because the segregated entertainment industry sadly mirrored society) THE place see the great African American entertainers of the period. Legends such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown filled the Howard with their musical genius. The Howard closed in the early 1980s and for three decades emitted the worst of sounds for a historic, musical treasure: silence. That changed this year when, after an extensive renovation, the Howard re-opened. Being a nostalgic soul and someone lacking any recollection of the original, it’s hard to say that the Howard has never looked better…but it simply couldn’t have ever looked better. Adorned with its iconic “Howard” sign on the theater’s facade and modern flash inside, the Howard is a spectacular venue befitting its place in American history.
My cousin and I were the two 30-something Gen-Xers; to pacify his extensive vanity, I’ll disclose that he’s seven years my junior. The two elderly couples and the carefree young lovers from Indiana will remain unidentified. What won’t is the urban “bar”: the Howard Theater. As the eight of us were seated at a second-row table, the diversity of the group immediately struck me. What on earth were we going to discuss until the show started? A nervous panoramic view slightly tempered my initial unease. Our situation wasn’t unique; nearly every table looked like a cross-section of America. The average age was probably 45 but the distribution around that mean was enormous. There was no identifiable majority race or gender. Regarding the attire, I’ll offer this: at one adjacent table sat a gentleman in a tuxedo…at the other was a dude wearing well-worn jeans and a tattered t-shirt from the movie “The Big Lebowski” that read, “The Dude Abides.” Indeed he does.
Our social dilemma was resolved quickly. We talked about…what else…why we were there: a common love of music and, specifically for this night, of Mr. Chuck Berry. During our introductions, an immediate conversational catalyst was identified: the elderly African American couple was from D.C. and were original Howard patrons. They offered a fascinating account of some of the best and most under-appreciated acts in music history. The conversation then naturally meandered to other greats such as Bob Dylan and a band from across the pond that was heavily influenced by Chuck Berry. You’ve probably heard of them…they’re called the Rolling Stones.
Showtime arrived before a moment of uncomfortable silence found our table. The curtains dropped and before our star-struck eyes appeared a living legend and a (if not the) godfather of Rock and Roll. Before Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there was Chuck Berry. For the next hour differences in race, religion and politics were put on pause by what bound us together: the infectious blues-infused Rock and Roll of Chuck Berry.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2012
On a major league diamond, though, Harper’s effort looks out of place. It is, however, unequivocally contagious. You can see it in the joyously infected eyes of the Nats’ coaches and Harper’s teammates. Harper’s ornery determination is making the occasionally mundane baseball regular season fun and it’s translating to wins. Call it the gift of youth. It’s something every organization can use a shot of. Harper’s enthusiasm and his team’s success are even threatening to lift the pessimistic haze from over D.C. and its expansive suburbia. Yikes…what are we going to do???
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
As Buffalo Springfield once said, “there’s something happening here…and what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
For 20 years Washington D.C. sports has been a gory horror flick on a continuous loop. It’s been so bad, for so long that District sports fans have forgotten how to support a winner. This was once a fan base that carried itself with a confident swagger and puffed out its chest at any mouthy challenger. Now, our profound pessimism, the product of nearly peerless futility, is so omnipotent that we snuff out any indication of better days and will our negative prophecies into reality. You see, D.C. is the town where a fan’s hope goes to die. That’s just how it is…and at this point we can’t imagine it any other way.
With that odd but true rant over, it’s understandable why the recent confluence of goodness that’s descended upon the nation’s capital has been so confounding. First, the ‘Skins boldly acquired Robert Griffin III – the exact person, player and position the franchise and fan base needed. Then the Capitals, perennial playoffs disasters that they mostly have been, seem to have hacked into the winning formula for playoff hockey and pleasantly overachieved this year. And finally, while even jaded Nationals fans would have acknowledged the team’s likely improvement this year, I don’t think anyone expected them to be this good. Despite a rash of injuries, the Nats keep winning behind the tried and true formula of exceptional pitching and timely hitting. What’s more promising though – for both the short- and long-term - is the return to form of pitching ace Stephen Strasburg and the recent addition of a teenage sparkplug.
Bryce Harper, 19, isn’t just another prospect. Harper, who followed Strasburg as the Nationals’ second consecutive #1 overall pick in the MLB draft, was from day one considered a franchise-altering talent. Like most teenagers, Harper’s performance to date has been inconsistent and there were rumblings about his arrogance and immaturity. The organization’s plan was to season Harper a little more at Triple-A and call him up later in the year. Injuries and a desperate need for some offensive pop accelerated Harper’s ascent and he was tapped to make his major league debut on April 28th.
Let me admit this up front: except for a few random minor league clips, I hadn’t laid eyes on Harper between the lines until he threw on a Nationals uniform. I expected to see an ordinary pro with flashes of exceptional talent. By “ordinary pro” I mean a guy who glides through games with a grace that indicates he is perhaps more concerned about pacing himself through a 162-game regular season rather than exerting maximum effort to win any particular game. You know what I’m talking about. Major League games are littered with batters jogging out fly balls or running out base hits with the assumption the outfield will field it cleanly as opposed to “thinking two” from the crack of the bat and looking to capitalize on the slightest bobble in the outfield. That’s just how major-leaguers play the game.
Harper didn’t get that memo. Harper, bursting with youthful exuberance, plays like there’s no game tomorrow, never mind the ~125 games remaining this summer. He hustles out every ball, throws his body all over the field and regularly exits with a bloodied and heavily soiled uniform. The kid’s crash-test-dummy approach reminds me of the passion regularly on display during the County’s Rocking Chair Softball League’s hey day. Indeed, Harper would have fit right in with Pennies, the Hollywood Stars and the legendary Hobos.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in April 2012
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It’s been a shameful few weeks, sports fans. Instead of behaving like role models, our heroes have resembled boorish frat boys with an intelligence-sapping beer buzz and a thirst for mischief. The figurative police blotter reads something like this…
The New Orleans “Saints”…how oxymoronic…are mired in the smelly wake of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ tenure. Williams’ bounty system – a disturbing pay-for-injury program – scored him an indefinite suspension from the NFL and has left the Saints without their head coach for the season (Sean Payton was suspended for the upcoming season).
Ozzie Guillen, the habitually potty-mouthed manager of the Miami Marlins, spewed ignorance and cultural insensitivity when he inexplicably praised Fidel Castro’s ability to survive 60 years of opposition. For his “enlightened” rhetoric, Guillen was suspended for 5 games and will be left with the massive chore of healing his relationship with the Latin community.
Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, a 51-year-old married father of four, wrecked his motorcycle and initially neglected to mention that his 25-year-old mistress was aboard. When faced with the release of the police report, Petrino finally came clean. Classy. His introduction now goes something like this: “Hi, I’m Bobby Petrino…I’m a liar, a cheating husband…and a recently unemployed football coach.”
And then there’s the cherry on the top of the sports world’s boob sundae: Tiger Woods. Once upon a time Woods’ performances at The Master’s were synonymous with record-setting performances, fist pumps and slipping on green jackets. This year, in the midst of an on-course meltdown, Woods paid homage to his inner “terrible two” and dropped kicked his club after an errant shot. Ahhh yes…Tiger Woods…the ultimate gentlemen for a gentlemen’s sport.
Interesting then that the mature counterbalance to this collection of pompous gray-bearded scoundrels that ought to know better is two youngsters not quite at the dawn of their professional careers. That dawn will arrive with the first two picks in the upcoming NFL Draft when Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (RGIII) are selected - likely in that order. It seems the Colts and ‘Skins, holders of the first two picks, will acquire the rarest of NFL assets: an ultra-talented young quarterback without a blemish on his character resume. In the intense spotlight of today’s sports coverage (one I’m glad won’t illuminate my past), both young men consistently say and do the right things and, given the absence of dirt on either one, apparently have always done so. They are remarkable and refreshing young lads, particularly considering the behavior of the aforementioned stooges (all apologies to Larry, Curly and Moe).
After two miserable decades of very sporadic success and bad quarterback play, RGIII’s likely arrival in D.C. has ‘Skins fans in a full lather. Anticipating his diverse skill-set in burgundy and gold has inflated the hope-meter to levels not seen since Joe Gibbs returned – and rightfully so. RGIII behind center, in this quarterback-dominated era, raises the possibility that the ‘Skins will become something they haven’t been since Gibbs’ first tenure: perennial contenders. Gasp! I know, right? Crazy talk. The ‘Skins have had good quarterbacks…long, long ago…but never anyone with the skills of this guy. RGIII is more mobile than Joe Theismann, has a deep ball as sweet as Mark Rypien’s, appears to have Sonny Jurgensen’s bravado and is as unflappable in the moment as Doug Williams (I’ll withhold any comparison to Sammy Baugh until I see him punt and play cornerback).
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Dec 2011
In the movie Gladiator, an enslaved Maximus continues to win the favor of his captors and fans for his victorious acts of violence in arranged battles. In a poignant moment, Maximus, irritated by the blood-thirst of spectators seeking savage amusement, hurls his sword at his captor’s perch. The act was met with catcalls and prompts an annoyed Maximus to yell, “Are you not entertained?” In that moment Maximus, as the great human conscience, captures exactly how I feel about Steelers football. Am I entertained by Steelers football? Not anymore.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Assemble all NFL teams together and, like every schoolyard, you’ll find a sample of styles covering the entire athletic continuum. The awkward and uncoordinated (the Colts and ‘Skins), the talented but unfocused (the Cowboys), the naturally gifted and elegant (Green Bay) and even the bullies are represented. There are many teams claiming territory in this latter group, but there’s only one true NFL playground thug: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No sports franchise personifies its city more accurately than the Steelers. The franchise’s name and logo were, obviously, derived from the local trademark steel industry, but the team’s cultural connection with the region is far deeper than these superficial indicators. Western Pennsylvania is synonymous with Appalachia, rugged, resilient Americans and steel. Similarly, as far back as the early 1970s and the famed Steel Curtain defense, Pittsburgh has proudly been one of the NFL’s tough guys. Stingy defenses, hard hits and blue-collar, no-nonsense players have been the hallmark of Steelers football for 40 years. The organization long ago adopted a successful formula that, like a good family recipe, they’ve stubbornly maintained without compromise. They draft and develop their own players and have little use for free agents who’ve been corrupted with another, non-Steelers culture. They seek out “steel”-minded, hard-nosed coaches that embody the “Steelers way “, show them uncommon loyalty – they‘ve had but three coaches since 1969 – and empower them to run the football operations. It’s a business model, a franchise and a style of play I’ve admired for many years. That admiration, despite the team’s on-going success, is starting to wane.
Violence, an innate aspect of football, is under assault. League rules regarding hits on quarterbacks and defenseless receivers has been redefined; the powers-that-be in the NFL have absolutely zero tolerance for helmet to helmet hits and NFL head-hunters who lead recklessly with the crown of their helmets. As one might suspect, such violence legislation and its enforcement has been met with great resistance from fans and players alike. Every Sunday fans erupt over perceived dubious personal fouls and players cry to their union over league-levied fines for illegal hits. Ground zero for this battle between old school football ops and the new school neutering of defensive aggression is Pittsburgh, PA.
No team has gotten more publicity for its blackout hits and fines than the Steelers. The new rules fly in the face of everything the Steelers are and team and fans are united in their angst. I was with them for a while. Now my answer to Black and Gold nation’s gripes is “too bad.” The truth is violence follows the Steelers. If you watch a team against any other opponent and then watch them against the Steelers, you’ll see two different brands of football. The Steelers are like the attitude-laden co-worker who brings out the worst in everyone around him or her. Watch a Steelers game and you’re probably going to see someone from the other team knocked senseless and stagger off the field. And for the most part, football fans – Steelers fans or otherwise – love it. That is sad commentary on the lack of basic humanity pervading society and stands on Sundays. Our ignorance of the long-term impact of concussions is long gone. There should be a collective intolerance for players who blatantly and habitually hit opponents high and disgust, not barbaric celebration, when someone’s husband, father or son is knocked senseless. For whatever reason, such play follows the Steelers and in this battle of wills, the NFL will, thankfully, prevail. The Steelers will conform…eventually. Their style represents football’s past, the league’s approach its sustainable, safer future.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Nov 2011
Being an early-70’s baby and member of a sport-crazed clan, I can – thank goodness – remember this success vividly (if you can’t, I’m so very sorry). Winning is all we knew, though, so making sense of the last 2 decades of nearly exclusive losing has left me perplexed and downtrodden; but I have it figured out now. At a fork in the road – a decision point - years ago, a horned beast propositioned us. This wasn’t a fiddle challenge for a golden fiddle or our soul, as the song suggests, but an offer to win - briefly - beyond our wildest dreams followed by an inadequately considered period of abysmal darkness. We took the deal and it produced a Mardi Gras-like period followed by its apparent consequence: a 20-year and running raging hangover. Perhaps I’ll subscribe to the aforementioned “natural order” theory – the one that suggests excessively good or bad times will self-correct – and await the goodness. Just in case I’ll keep the aspirin nearby on game day.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
At any moment, everyone is dealing with some combination of positive and negative issues in their lives. Such is life, and the psychological approaches to deal with the variables of human existence are many. Once such theory suggests that when the opposing forces of good and bad are unbalanced, when life is oddly smooth or nearly unbearable, something will happen to reset our world – a life reboot if you will – to snap us back to the middle.
I don’t buy it…not completely, anyway. It dismisses an individual’s ability to chart his or her path, to influence their life’s course. Karma is real, and we all control far less than we’d like to think, but we’re not simply blowing in the wind and riding it to whatever pleasant or dark destination it takes us. There’s at least some fraction of this great journey we can influence.
Regardless of what approach you’ve adopted to negotiate life’s fickle ways, this much is universally true: every decision unfurls opportunities and bears the opportunity cost of the path not taken. There’s the school we attended, the person we married, the children we had, the career we pursued…and those we didn’t. In that substantial population of un-traveled paths reside great consequences. Sometimes the consequences can be assessed, but more often they are poorly estimated at decision time, revealing themselves some time later, if at all, and only to those with the tendency to seek an explanation of the present by considering the past. I’m guilty as charged of such nostalgic wiring.
With that long-winded, marginally comprehensible dribble having run dry, the pathetic state of D.C. sports and its stark and previously unexplainable contrast to the period between 1978 and 1992, makes a lot more sense. What is there to say about the home teams? The NBA lockout may be ending, which only means that the Wizards can begin anew their annual quest for a ticket to the NBA Draft Lottery. The once mighty Terps, with coaches Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen gone, have barely over a handful of scholarship basketball players (and were trounced by Iona…IONA!) and a football program in complete disarray. How long ago 2002’s national championship in basketball and ACC championship in football seem now. The ‘Skins, who are difficult to speak about, are as bad as they’ve been in my lifetime. The Caps, the one bright spot in recent years, are imploding after a 7-0 start and Coach Bruce Boudreau’s days have to be numbered. Far more serious than these nauseating on-field escapades is what has befallen the Nationals this off-season. Wilson Ramos, their starting catcher and member of a bright young core, was kidnapped…kidnapped…in his home country of Venezuela. Fortunately he was found unharmed.
It’s hard to remember, but it wasn’t always this bad. Between 1978 and 1992, D.C. won its lone NBA championship (’78), saw its adopted baseball team – the Orioles – win the World Series (’83), enjoyed the Caps’ annual trips to the NHL playoffs and celebrated three Super Bowl wins. It all seemed so easy. Winning was common. All our teams were good and the ‘Skins were regular title contenders.
Monday, January 6, 2014
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Jan 2010
All in all, that’s a pretty good run. No doubt the next decade in sports will bring with it similar thrills from players we don’t yet know; and who knows, some may be lurking on the fields of Southern Maryland. We’ll see. I’m on my couch, remote in one hand, adult beverage in the other, appreciative of this decade’s memories and eagerly awaiting the sports stories of the next one to unfold. Happy New Year/Decade to you and yours.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
This century’s aughts (or whatever we’re calling the last 10 years) weren’t a banner decade for the good old U.S.A. It started with us struggling to identify a President and making a mockery of an election, one of the key components of our democracy. Shortly thereafter, we experienced the tragic and life-altering terrorists attacks of 9/11; and to this day continue to fight the wars that followed. Katrina happened. The stock market slumbered along and eventually went belly up. The housing bubble burst and the economy tanked. Enron redefined corporate corruption and the financial sector proved to have the self-control of an overzealous teenager. We were confronted with the sobering reality of the cost of our children’s college education. Most of us came to realize that global warming probably is “An Inconvenient Truth” and that how we currently interact with our planet isn’t sustainable. Needless to say it was a lot to get your mind around in a short period of time. Fortunately, in those nearly overwhelming moments, there was the familiarity and comfort of a ballgame to get lost in. Like a dutiful spouse, sports kept chugging along through richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Baseball helped give us a national pulse again after 9/11, the re-opening of the Superdome for Saints football signified some level of recovery for New Orleans, and collectively sports helped us navigate through job uncertainties, plummeting retirement accounts and the rest of the bad news this over-stimulated age of instant, often twisted for effect, communication heaved upon us.
Still, despite the athletic rays of sunlight amidst a decade of storm, sports too had its indiscretions. The aughts will forever be linked with steroid use and the transgressions of countless athletes. At times US Weekly covered “athletes gone wild” as well as ESPN. And when reflecting on our local teams, I wasn’t immediately filled with that warm, easy feeling synonymous with one’s favorite holiday beverage. At the risk of missing someone, my immediate thoughts were of the local icons lost. We said goodbye to broadcasting legend and Maryland resident Jim McKay and D.C. sports anchor George Michael. Sean Taylor was senselessly murdered. And in Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh, Baltimore and D.C. football fans lost the best quarterbacks in franchise history and among the greatest in NFL history. It was a lost decade for the Orioles and one of much drama and little substance for the Skins. There were no major sports titles in D.C. and The Preakness isn’t what it used to be.
Yet, perhaps this immediate, glass half empty recollection was a product of the “aught slumber” and not an objective assessment of the decade that was. Indeed, on second thought, from a sports standpoint the aught’s weren’t too bad. This hurts me but yes, the Ravens won a Superbowl. In 2002, everyone feared the turtle as Maryland won the men’s basketball championship and the football team went to the Orange Bowl. The ladies basketball team won a national title in 2006. Georgetown, behind this generation’s John Thompson and Patrick Ewing, went to the final four in 2007. At long last MLB returned to D.C. The Wizards were, dare I say, a perennial playoff team. The Capitals hit the lottery with Alex Ovechkin. Baltimore native Michael Phelps won a gold bar’s worth of medals. Darrell Green and Art Monk (finally!) were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cal Ripken Jr. was enshrined in Cooperstown. George Mason made a run to the Final Four in 2006 that epitomized the greatness of March Madness. And Navy football beat Notre Dame twice and Army NINE times.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Nov 2011
The wake of this raw honesty has produced endless rollers of disbelief. It’s hard to discern the honest from the tainted. Trust is a big issue. At least there are still coaches like Paterno and schools like PSU to temper our cynicism. Or there were. Paterno’s never had a blemish, always done things the right way and has few moral and ethical peers. Or he did. For at least 9 years Paterno knew that his long-time assistant had done something horrific, yet in a defining moment, this one-time moral compass and the coach countless parents had entrusted their sons with, protected himself, his school and his former assistant and failed a group of innocent children. Paterno’s exit from PSU amidst this great tragedy is more than the destruction of coaching legacy; it’s also the tarnishing of Joe Paterno the human being. In the end, he and PSU were exposed as just another moral façade in the sporting world (or otherwise) and are in a long line of people and entities that aren’t what we thought, and hoped, they were.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
In 1966 my father was a year out of high school, I was years away from being a concept and Joe Paterno was the rookie head football coach at Pennsylvania State University. Today, that recent high school graduate is now a 64-year-old professional retiree (the Beatles are signing his song), the future humanoid (me) is nearly 39 and Paterno is merely a week removed from the unceremonious end to his astonishing 46-year head-coaching reign at PSU.
Paterno, of course, wasn’t un-done in the traditional manner – a lack of winning – but by his now well dissected and uncharacteristic failure to appropriately act on knowledge that Jerry Sandusky, his long-time defensive coordinator, was committing disgusting acts with young boys. Here’s a quick and disturbing summary (that’s your warning if you want to skip to the next paragraph) of what we currently know: Sandusky, through the University and/or his foundation, The Second Mile, allegedly had inappropriate contact with several boys from 1994 through 2009. In 2002, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant, allegedly observed Sandusky performing a sex act with a young boy in a campus shower. The next day, McQueary reported the incident to Paterno who in-turn informed the athletic director, Tim Curley. That’s where the incident inexplicably appeared to die on the vine, as there was no communication with the proper authorities and no investigation.
Last week Sandusky, Paterno’s right hand man and one-time heir-apparent, was arrested and charged with 40 counts of improper contact with young boys over a 15-year period. What Paterno knew, when he knew it and what he did about it only he knows for sure. Paterno was aware of the 2002 incident and it seems reasonable to conclude, given the dictatorial style of most head coaches and his long relationship with Sandusky, that he knew this wasn’t an isolated incident. Admittedly that’s speculation. What isn’t in dispute is that by at least 2002, Paterno knew something terrible was happening in his midst, on his watch and in the middle of the program he spent half a century building. But instead of acting swiftly and comprehensively, he inexplicably and unforgivably turned a blind eye, after merely a passing glance, toward one of humanities greatest and most vulgar sins.
The information age has merged the once great divide between the perception of players, teams and institutions and reality. Twitter feeds directly into the minds of athletes and the media’s speed and tenacity have left little mystery and few unanswered questions about the world of sports. The ability to filter data and form comfortably ignorant, ideal versions of athletic superheroes is long gone. With Pandora’s box perpetually ajar, what we are left with is – ready or not – the ground truth. That truth, more often than not, has left us disappointed, shocked and occasionally deeply disturbed. The truth is baseball players use steroids, major college programs break the rules and compromise the integrity of competition (USC, Ohio State and anyone coached by John Calipari, for example) and illegal videotapes are used by some of the NFL’s best (Bill Belichick’s other legacy).
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Sept 2011
The darks acts of the few often overwhelm the good acts of the many. In these moments, with our confidence in human nature wavering, it’s important to remember the positive work being done. Of course it helps the resolve when the acts of kindness are received personally and when you need them most.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Last year, like so many parents before and inevitably after me, I had the pleasure of two extended stays at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Most parents at least experience a worried and white-knuckled trip to the Children’s E.R.; the lucky few get to stay awhile. It’s a great place – I mean that…I feel compelled to say so because I recognize it’s often hard to tell where the sarcasm ends and the truth begins. The staff is incredible, the doctors are tireless and the joint – from the decorum to the activities and 24/7 in-room kid-friendly network - is simply amazing. Collectively it’s a facility completely committed to its primary mission: comforting and treating sick children.
Still, it’s a hospital. It’s the last place a parent wants their child. And a few weeks of foldout couches, lukewarm showers, cafeteria fare and endless middle-of-the-night doctors visits can take a toll on you. What’s worse, of course, is waking up every morning to your sick child lying in a hospital bed attached to as many wires as an HD T.V. In that semi-delirious moment it hits you again, just like it had the day before: it’s not a bad dream, it’s reality and you have to deal with it. Fortunately my family’s adventure had a reasonably happy ending.
Self-pity certainly wasn’t a problem (Children’s hospitals are an effective antidote). During our second stay, the room had a birds-eye view of the hospital’s helicopter pad. Whether I wanted to or not (and I didn’t), I was acutely aware of every departure and arrival. It left me with only my imagination to consider the terrible circumstances surrounding the helicopter’s dispatch. Certainly some parent, similar to me, was instantly dealing with something far worse than I was. In another very poignant moment, your weary (or so he thought) sports guy, nearly two weeks deep into his stay, entered an elevator where two women were talking openly. It was impossible not to ascertain that this wasn’t their first meeting. As the elevator arrived at one of the their destinations, the other asked, “how long have you been here now?” As the doors opened she turned back in mid-stride and answered, “12 weeks…hopefully only a couple more to go.” In that moment I, only two weeks in, was the closest I hope to ever be to the feeling Lou Gehrig had when he famously said, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Like I said, parental self-pity is fleeting in a children’s hospital.
A hospital seemed an odd place to intersect with my beloved world of sports, but meet we did. Such has been my relationship with sports. Unlike many things in life, it has always been there and has rarely let me down; this challenging period was no different. During our stays, we were fortunate to catch visits from Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and then-closer Matt Capps and D.C. native and Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis. All three gentlemen couldn’t have been more gracious. Watching each patiently paint, draw, sign autographs and interact with sick kids was the antithesis of the sensationalized media profile of pro-athletes. The propaganda we’re fed portrays them as self-absorbed, spoiled, disconnected millionaires who have little concern for the plight of the average family. Like most broad brush-strokes, there’s truth in that accusation. However, there are plenty of exceptions to the after-hours brawls, mindless tweets, violent acts against women, steroid use and general debauchery that dominants the sports news fans are force-fed. I met three such exceptions. Like white knights they took time out of their schedules to give back their communities and produced smiles (from children and parents) where few existed and many were needed. They did so likely knowing that their acts wouldn’t be publicized. To my knowledge, they weren’t.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Aug 2011
It is difficult to see 2011’s melancholy version of Dale Jr. Long gone is the smiling, carefree young man of 10+ years ago when he was trading paint with his dad. He is still cheered vigorously, but he’s more of a sympathetic than actual star. He’ll never be the driver everyone (himself included) thought he’d be. Hopefully he can channel that Earnhardt moxie and find a satisfying place in his life and his career. If he pulls that trick it’ll be one more reason to cheer Dale Earnhardt Jr. Finding that sweet spot in life is a shared journey that links fans to an athlete far more deeply than regular champagne showers in victory lane.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
There is, still, a prevailing perception among the broader sporting public that NASCAR is a simple sport for simple folk. Superficially it appears only to be a bunch of fast cars piloted by hotheaded drivers who flunked anger management 101 making left turns until the checkered flag drops. While that may have been a fair assessment 30 years ago, the stereotype does a terrible injustice to the product’s evolution. Today’s “stock” car, having been wind tunnel and on-track tested and every part and subsystem analyzed by the brightest minds with sole purpose of sucking every last fraction of speed from the machine, is an engineering marvel. NASCAR’s modern machine is built and manipulated in a setting that’s more lab than garage. Drivers too have grown from beer swilling, hammer down, bump and grind outlaws to polished, intellectual test pilots whose knowledge of the car and in-race feedback to the crew chief is as critical to victory as their ability to navigate the car to the front.
Ironically, this casually and incorrectly oversimplified sport has as its most popular performer the most interesting and complex athlete in the sports world. This reference is of course to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Describing Jr. starts with the obvious: he’s the son of NASCAR legend and 7-time champion Dale Earnhardt. On this fascinating foundation of a son following his iconic father into the same line of work are many more layers of intrigue. Jr. is also the driver who had the weight of the entire sport suddenly heaped on his shoulders at the start of only his second full-time season after his father was tragically killed during the 2001 Daytona 500. He’s the talented hotshot who, frustrated with his progress and influence, made the decision to leave his father’s company – Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – and sign with rival Hendrick Motorsports. He’s the driver who, name aside, frankly hasn’t lived up to his talent and, in a desperate effort to match results with his alleged skill, has rifled through crew chiefs like rock stars cycle through girlfriends. And lastly, he’s the now 36-yr-old man whose spirit appears broken by it all: the weight of his inescapable name, the suffocating love from fans and the unfulfilled expectations.
In these “layers of Jr.” there’s a personal correlation for nearly everyone. Perhaps that’s why, somewhat sadly, his pedestrian performance hasn’t affected his popularity. The fact of the matter is, despite his access to the best resources in the sport, Jr’s won a paltry 18 races since 1999, 3 races since 2005 and has never finished better than 3rd (in 2003) in the final Sprint Cup standings. Fans rarely celebrate the average, but we all (still) love us some Jr. He connects with sons struggling to overcome the shortcomings or equal the financial and domestic accomplishments of their fathers. He’s an example for those confronting a career fork in the road, having exhausted their growth within an organization, and are facing the fear of the unknown in deference to their ambition. He’s a source of strength for those who have, or will, lose a major cog in their family machine and will attempt (or be expected to do) the impossible task of filling the void. And finally we cheer Jr. because life will be, at times, unimaginably joyous and unbearably difficult, and when it’s the latter, our resolve will waiver too.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2011
We are resilient creatures. Life demands it. Still, positive experiences restore our resolve. Teeing up a new golf ball and promptly depositing it in the water hazard, literally and figuratively, is inevitable. However, balanced against just a few positive moments, such failings won’t matter nearly as much.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It was a fabulously atypical mid-week spring day. At first, there was nothing overtly out of the ordinary. The weather forecast was, as expected, sunny and seasonably warm. The day’s first sound, familiarly rude and abrupt, gave no indication that this dawn would produce a day drastically different from its yesterday or tomorrow. This day’s delightful weather wouldn’t be wasted behind a desk though, and the abrupt morning sound – a dutiful alarm clock – woke its master not for another day of work but for a round of golf.
A “best ball” or “captain’s choice” tournament was on the agenda. This popular format allows a foursome to select the best shot after each rotation with all players hitting their next shots from that location. For him, “hack golfer” (antonym for scratch golfer) that he is, it’s a beautiful thing. No matter how disastrous the first three shots are, if the fourth guy drills it down the middle, everyone essentially drilled it down the middle. It’s socialism we can all agree on.
With good friends in the foursome in front of his, a pride-based wager was negotiated between the groups and relentless, good-natured heckling ensued. About halfway through the round, his team had spread about three holes worth of competent play over nine holes. It was epically bad. Facing a short par 3 with a wickedly tiered green, water in front and to the right and thick foliage to the left and off the back of the green, the “fantastic” four wasn’t teeing off with any confidence. To make matters worse, the following hole’s tee was just off the green, thereby giving their heckling buddies a front row and within-ear-shot seat to the inevitable carnage.
The first three shots to the green were literally right into the drink (take 1), painfully short and barely dry on the embankment in front of the green (take 2) and left into the woods (take 3). Their boys, lubed up on the over-21 sauce and waiting to tee off on the next hole, were lobbing increasingly obnoxious verbal barbs with each successive sacrifice of an innocent golf ball. He had one more swing to pull his foursome from the burning building.
Nothing in his golfing history and certainly nothing from this day would have led even a degenerate gambler from putting a nickel on his shot coming up aces. It was a healthy 9-iron to the green. The way he had been striking the ball, he considered a compensatory 8-iron. As he drew his sword from his golf bag, he figured screw it, act like a golfer and assume you’re going to hit it flush…he grabbed the 9-iron. With a boisterous audience quieting ever so briefly as he swung, he hit it square. The ball launched on a majestic trajectory and was dead-on the pin. One thought crossed his mind: be right. After a soft landing, a bounce and a gentle roll, the ball stopped…less than two feet from the pin. His foursome erupted and his jeering buddies standing greenside quietly tipped their caps.
The shot was, most assuredly, a fleeting flirtation with golfing brilliance. Nevertheless, as the perfect tonic for another frustrating round littered with errant shots, it was a moment that reaffirmed his connection with a mercurial game and ensured his rapid return to the links to chase the next lasting memory.
His on again, off again relationship with golf needed this moment. Truth is, we all need these rejuvenating moments, whether we play golf or not. Personal relationships need breaks from daily routines to cultivate new, binding experiences. Workplaces should pause to recognize and celebrate individual and team accomplishments. Marriages need the occasional quiet, child-less dinner when a wife, through a rare carefree smile from across the table, unknowingly reminds her husband that he married the most beautiful women in the world.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2011
There are moments when our situational view clouds the big picture or even the blatantly obvious. In these moments, we rely on workplace leaders to point out that our performance has slipped or on friends to honestly confront us about a toxic relationship or dependency. Similarly, the NHL needs to acknowledge its “save me from myself” situation, and require the use of full headgear, “cages” if you will, immediately. It’s unrealistic to think players, whose toughness and recklessness helped them reach hockey’s pinnacle, will make this transition for themselves. The NFL has at least created the perception of proactivity in preventing concussions; it’s time for the NHL to follow suit. Having players like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and the Capitals’ Mike Green miss significant time with concussions stinks; what’s worse is seeing a player’s long-term health…or life…compromised. While the science behind the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions will continue to improve, forcing discretion, for the time being, through the use of maximum protection, seems an obvious choice to one not so close to the game or deeply programmed by its unyielding culture.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
On May 12, 2011, the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings met in game seven of NHL’s Western Conference Semifinals. The Sharks had jumped out to a 3-0 series, but being the heart-full champions and playoff stalwarts that they are, Detroit battled back to even the series at three games apiece. Entering the decisive seventh game, San Jose had home ice, Detroit had the momentum: it was anyone’s series.
Home ice prevailed. The Sharks thwarted a late Detroit rally to win 3-2. During the captivating series both teams displayed a resiliency and determination that I long to see in my beloved (but habitually choking dog) Capitals. As enthralling as game seven was, the outcome, at least for someone with no rooting interest in either team, took a backseat to more serious contemplation halfway through the contest.
During the second period, Detroit’s Danny Cleary was accidentally blindsided by teammate Jiri Hudler. Hudler clipped the side of Cleary’s face as he brushed by his unsuspecting teammate at full throttle. Cleary, instantly senseless, fell limply slamming his head onto the ice. After a few motionless moments, Cleary regained adequate faculties to wobble off the ice with considerable assistance.
This scene – a concussed athlete staggering off the stage - has become too familiar. Better diagnosis combined with bigger, stronger and faster athletes have contributed to a concussion epidemic in violent sports. For its popularity and viciousness, football is most synonymous with head injuries. Hockey, though, is certainly in the dubious discussion. With twelve players loose in a boarded arena, equipped with sticks and whacking a frozen chunk of rubber at 100 mph, is it any wonder?
And yet, while these sports share this serious problem, the primary line of concussion prevention – helmets – have traveled very different evolutionary paths. NFL helmets have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Gone are the comical single-bar facemasks of Joe Theismann fame and the loose-fitting shells from prior generations. The outer shell, padding, facemasks and chinstraps of NFL helmets have experienced a dramatic transformation. And in this corner we have the static NHL helmet, lacking any recent noticeable change and resembling a bike helmet more than a protective device worthy of hockey’s physicality.
While the hockey helmet itself is limited, NHL players could choose to wear full “cages” (composite frames or full plastic shields) that provide protection to the entire face and jaw area. Such contraptions are required for college and high school players. Despite these alternatives, most NHL players, valorous roughnecks as they are, compete with nothing more than a loosely fitting lid and the occasional token visor. With all due respect to Franklin Roosevelt, there is more to fear than fear itself for athletes prone to concussions; it’s called chronic traumatic encephalophathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that’s increasingly common in athletes who have experience multiple head traumas. CTE symptoms include memory loss, mood instability and depression and it has almost certainly been a contributing factor in the pre-mature death - some via suicide - of retired athletes.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Apr 2011
Woods still matters because of his competitive drive. Even in his diminished state, he’d step on or over anyone to win. He competes like only one other athlete I’ve seen: Jordan. Ironically, this shared trait yielded similar professional successes and personal flaws. Still, Woods’ stubborn, fighting spirit – unchanged by his success and fortune - is a glimpse of what created and forged America and what will sustain her in a complex future. Keeping score has become something of a societal taboo and often everyone walks away with a trophy. That’s okay in certain situations, but it’s still exhilarating to see someone refusing to rest on their laurels, demanding the best from themselves and obsessively chasing victory. Woods plays every tournament like it’s his first and last, as if he’s proven nothing and has one shot to succeed. I appreciate and respect him for that. That, more than anything else, is why he still matters and why I still root for Tiger Woods the golfer, in spite of Tiger Woods the man.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Spring. It officially begins with the vernal equinox. This celestial milestone aside, spring’s commencement is often defined more personally. For those stricken with cabin fever, March is close enough; for others it’s April’s arrival (no fooling). One of Southern Maryland’s first acts of spring is the opening of a certain Polynesian-themed roadside watering hole. For me, it’s the world’s best golfers engaging an in-full-bloom Augusta National and chasing one of the coolest “trophies” in the world: the green jacket. In other words, The Masters = spring.
Bandwidth has become a constraint in my relationship with sports. As I’ve rocketed through my 30’s, life has expectedly piled on heightened responsibilities that have been an un-welcomed therapist for my sports-addiction. But, I’ve adapted. Life is now joyously different. When it comes to following sports, I’m like a “Christmas and Easter Christian” now: I skim across the sports calendar immersing only in the biggest events. The Masters is a sporting Christmas or Easter.
And yet even with its “sacred” foothold, through three rounds my interest was dulled this year. With all due respect to contenders like Rory McIlroy and eventual champ Charl Schwartzel, none of them had me juiced for Sunday at The Masters. However, just when I was ready to abandon the tournament for domestic productivity (fancy term for chores), he got really hot on the front nine and surged into contention. Entering the final round seven shots out of the lead, he was an afterthought. In the blink of an eye though, the tournament was his for the taking and I was back on the couch for the duration of the afternoon, matching him fist pump for fist pump, rooting for another historical chapter in the career of The Legend Of The Links himself, Mr. Tiger Woods.
But why? Why do I still so passionately root for Tiger Woods? There’s so little to like. The man took infidelity to rock star levels, barely tolerates fans and is rude to the media. He does not enjoy the company of many of his peers, nor do many enjoy his. On the course his language could make a sailor cringe and his mannerisms simulate toddler behavior. And perhaps most significantly, there are simply better golfers right now.
So why do I still care so much about this guy? Is it because, as an African American, he’s still a golfing revolutionary that stands for greater diversity and continued advancement in sports and society? That’s part of it, but golf, while not a sport with significant African American representation at the professional level, is very diverse. Throw the names of 50 random golfers in a hat and draw one and you could literally get a name from any continent, save for the big frozen one. Are my reasons selfish? In my lifetime I’ve seen the greatest players in tennis (Roger Federer), hockey (Wayne Gretzky), football (Jerry Rice) and basketball (Michael Jordan). It would be sweet to see Woods break Jack Nicklaus’ record for majors and claim golf’s thrown. So yes, selfishness is a slither of my Tiger worship…but that’s not “it”.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Feb 2011
Herkelman and Northrup should be commended for the courage and the maturity with which they handled this awkward and equally principled situation. There’s little doubt that that both will manage more conventional circumstances under which boy meets girl with similarly uncommon poise and grace.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Boy encounters girl. Boy fails to engage girl. It is something that happens, with regularity. The natural reaction to a wave of infatuation – being temporarily tongue-tied, humor-less and socially awkward – can be overwhelming. Whether it was the new girl in math class or the attractive artist from apartment 4B, most guys have lacked the courage to approach a young lady at some point in their lives. So if you heard that a teenage boy in Iowa recently balked at engaging a fellow high school aged girl, your likely reaction would be, “been there, done that” (for the guys) or “been there, seen that” (for the ladies). This encounter though was a little more complicated and completely out of the ordinary.
The cast, for this chance encounter, included leading boy, Joel Northrup, and leading girl, Cassey Herkelman. They met at a gymnasium in Des Moines, Iowa…to wrestle each other in the state’s wrestling tournament. Northrup subtly defaulted, though, before the match began citing religious beliefs that prevented him from engaging a woman in a violent manner. Herkelman was awarded, and graciously accepted, the victory.
Rarely does an exchange between teenagers have such depth. Personally, young Northrup left me terribly conflicted. As the father of a daughter, I was initially annoyed that he didn’t respect his opponent, regardless of gender, and square off against her. She, like him, had arrived at this moment based on hard work and merit. She deserved to wrestle Northrup until the best wrestler, boy or girl, won. Like the majority of society, I have no tolerance ceilings placed on an individual’s potential simply because they don’t fit a particular profile (name your “ism”). I will not temper my daughter’s dreams if they boldly lead her where her gender has rarely dared to go. While I respect Northrup’s right to make a personal decision, it feels like a passive-aggressive way of saying, “you don’t belong here.”
On the other hand, as the father of a son, I would have cringed had my boy engaged, and physically dominated Herkelman; so I completely understand his decision. A man worthy of the air he breathes would never physically impose himself on a woman. Likewise, any father deserving of that title, ingrains in his son that no circumstance exists that justifies physically threatening or harming a woman. The sport of wrestling, because it requires the direct physical engagement of two combatants intent on pinning the other, puts any male competing against a female in an awkward situation.
So who’s right?
The co-habitation of genders on the athletic field is certainly not unprecedented. I bet a good number of us in the County have played on co-ed softball teams. Then again, athletic departments are routinely divided by gender and maintain separate programs for boys and girls; an acknowledgement of the undeniable physical differences that generally exist between men and woman. More significant than sports, no one would (or should) argue that women still face sexist barriers and that violence against women is a far too frequent atrocity (accusations of domestic violence and sexual assault appear regularly in sports pages).
It seems then that both kids were correct. Herkelman was right for competing; women should always push the envelope of what’s possible and acceptable. Equality is more easily preached than practiced, and our society has proven it needs a constant nudge. Northrup too showed commendable courage in refusing to enter into a direct physical confrontation with a girl. A rational mind easily discerns the difference between a co-ed high school wrestling match and violence against women. But those who commit such violent acts are far beyond rational thoughts. Northrup just wasn’t willing to compromise his beliefs and put on display a boy battling physically with a girl – even under the auspice of athletic competition - for the sake of winning a wrestling match.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Feb 2011
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Had enough of Daniel Snyder this week? I hope not. I’m betting a few lonely emotion-stirring threads of optimism remain to be severed by Tyrannical Rex himself before you’re sent plummeting helplessly into the deepest depths of despair his horrendous ownership has repeatedly wrought upon the ‘Skins franchise. If he’s broken your will and you must abort immediately, I completely understand. But, if you’re still clinging to something, and you dare to risk forever blackening the faint flickers of hope, then stay with me. I’ll try to get to the point quickly (think whiskey, not beer).
This disclaimer was necessary of course because Snyder finally found a way to be newsworthy during Super Bowl week. He accomplished this ultimate quest not by leading his franchise to the big game (let’s not get crazy), but by dropping a well-publicized lawsuit on a D.C. newspaper for publishing a Snyder-scathing article. Now I won’t belabor this thoroughly covered situation further than to say Snyder’s lawsuit contends the article contained inaccurate information and anti-Semitic content that was libelous and defaming. If you need more gouge than that, there are plenty of “Dan Snyder lawsuit” exits off the information superhighway. More intriguing than the lawsuit and healthy reaction to it is trying to figure out how in the world this came to pass and what to take from it.
Snyder could have played this hand countless different ways. A lawsuit was absolutely an option; only Snyder knows how this article impacted him and it’s his right to protect his reputation against any attack. But even if he wins the case he’ll lose resoundingly in the court of public opinion. Snyder’s decisions shouldn’t be governed by what’s popular, necessarily, but the buying patterns of the general public, the backbone of his business, are influenced by the prevailing perception of the organization. Frankly, if season tickets were available, I’d pass, primarily because of Snyder. The lawsuit insures that he comes off as more unlikable: the billionaire bully strong-arming the media, just because he can. He would have been more effective in advancing his point and business by using the media resources he owns to express his outrage and tell his side of the story.
And the timing is just horrible. The organization has worked hard to restore its credibility and faith in ownership by completely renovating its football staff (ousting Jim Zorn and Vinny Cerrato and hiring Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen) and chain of command (Snyder claims he’s relinquished football decisions). This lawsuit completely undermines the campaign to redefine Snyder and the ‘Skins. Worse yet, it just seems a tacky move by one of the most powerful men in D.C. In a recent interview Snyder offered a principled defense of his actions by saying, “what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong” and that this editorial was just wrong. Interesting comment from an insensitive owner who knows the name of his franchise is offensive to Native Americans but clearly doesn’t care. In another ironic twist, I received a Valentine’s Day promotional email this week from the ‘Skins titled “Love Is In The Air”. Seriously.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Jan 2011
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting former Cleveland Indians pitcher and Hall of Famer, Bob Feller. In his 18 seasons with Cleveland between 1936 and 1956, Feller won 266 games, was an 8-time all-star and led the league in wins 6 times, innings pitched 5 times and strikeouts 7 times. Feller was best known for his fastball, for which he earned the nickname “Rapid Robert”. In an age before radar guns, Feller once participated in a quirky stunt with a speeding motorcycle to calculate just how much heat he had on his heater. The result, 104 M.P.H., may or may not have been accurate but his 2,581 career strikeouts and 0.67 average strikeouts per inning, prove this: Feller threw serious smoke. In fact, Feller’s strikeouts/inning ratio was superior to Walter Johnson’s (0.59) and Lefty Grove’s (0.57), perhaps the two most heralded flamethrowers until Feller’s arrival.
With all due respect to the Cleveland Indians franchise (but hey, there’s a reason the Indians were chosen for the goof-ball “Major League” movie series), had Feller played in Boston or New York, his legacy likely would have been even more significant and his place among the games greatest all-time hurlers further solidified. Nevertheless, meeting Feller, a member of baseball’s royal court, left me awestruck. I certainly didn’t need a cardiologist to tell me that my heart rate and blood pressure had spiked. And so, as a thousand creative questions rattled around in my mind, all I managed to verbalize was, “Who was the toughest batter you faced?” The answer wasn’t Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, as expected, but Tommy Henrich, an outfielder for the Yankees from the late 30’s through the 40’s. Curious about Feller’s more famous contemporaries, I asked him what it was like to face DiMaggio. Feller said that earlier in their careers DiMaggio worked him over pretty good, but “after the war, I got the better of him.”
For a time, I was focused on Feller’s interesting identification of Henrich as the deepest thorn in his side. As the years have gone by, the lasting memory of my encounter became a phrase he used: “ after the war”. He was, of course, referring to World War II. Feller volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. He was the first of many major leaguers to trade a glove for a weapon. Like many of his contemporaries – DiMaggio and Williams included – the war cost him several years in the prime of his career. Yet, there wasn’t even a trace of bitterness or regret in Feller’s war reference. To the contrary, the casual, matter-of-fact way in which Feller referred to his heroic military service spoke to his and his generation’s perspective on their call to arms: it was their responsibility to serve.
Feller’s generation is often called America’s greatest and while our country has had many challenging periods, it just might be. Personally, I wonder whether my generation and those subsequent would have been as selfless and aware of a greater cause beyond the individual (and certainly the game of baseball) as Feller’s was in answering the country’s call and mobilizing and sacrificing on a national level. Certainly times have changed. As a people we question our Government more now, a product of the information age, and the bad guys aren’t as definable as the Axis powers were. Still, if there was a serious global threat to democracy, an attack on American soil and a declaration of war, would Tom Brady so willingly and without reservation volunteer for war? Would LeBron James? Would I?
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Nov 2010
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
There is little doubt that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was paying close attention as Major League Baseball’s star players and executives were paraded before Congress during the great performance enhancing drug detoxification. The lesson for all other major sports was this: unless you want the U.S. Congress in your shorts and “assisting” in the cleansing process…and you most certainly do not…you better remain vigilant in policing your cul-de-sac in the sporting community, particularly those with significance beyond the professional ranks.
And so, as head injuries have become the hot issue in the increasingly violent profession of pro football, the NFL has attempted to stay on the leading edge (at least in perception if not reality) in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions. Concussed players are now immediately removed from games and a neurological testing protocol has been established to determine a player’s return to game action. As far as equipment goes, flip on any NFL game and you’ll observe various generations of helmet technology, the newest of which have contours and vents that seem to have been modeled after exotic sports cars.
The noteworthy evolution in the handling of concussions and of protective equipment has been broadly supported. It seems no one – even the most blood thirsty fans and staunchest supports of “old school” football – is so detached from the reality and seriousness of concussions as to have issues with better treatment and improvements in protective gear for the Sunday gladiator. However, addressing concussions at their source – violent hits – has been about as popular as (since it’s election week) Al Gore crashing a Big Oil rally or George W. Bush speaking at Cal Berkeley.
The NFL has been flirting with controlling the big hits that cause concussions and head injuries for years. There are existing rules that ban shots to the head of quarterbacks, laying out defenseless receivers and defenders launching themselves head first into opposing players. The enforcement of the rules has been inconsistent and the penance for an offender has been no more than an in-game penalty and a token fine; nothing that would fundamentally change how the game is played. And realistically, why would the NFL be proactive? Like the long ball in baseball, big hits help sell the product. Investigating why record amounts of homeruns were being hit or objectively researching the implications of head trauma from football isn’t good for business.
After a particularly gory recent Sunday, one filled with an alarming amount of unconscious players, the NFL apparently either had had enough or it realized that the tolerance of such images by a certain elected body in Washington, DC might be waning. Regardless, the NFL acted quickly, announcing that players guilty of a flagrant shot to an opposing player’s head would be subject to a suspension. That may sound reasonable to the average fan, but many current and former players were appalled, arguing that you couldn’t suddenly ask players to change how they play and that removing the high and tight hit from a defenders arsenal would erode the game.
With all due respect to this opinion, it is an emotional, testosterone-fueled overreaction. If you’ve studied organizational change, or just lived through the inevitable surprises of life, you know that dealing with change is a process beginning generally with denial or an initial shock and eventually transitioning to acceptance (or at least tolerance). The reality is the NFL has been legislating collisions and contact between players for years. Yet somehow the league has thrived despite outlawing clotheslines, head slaps, horse-collar tackles and hits to the legs of quarterbacks. This list of misfit plays now has another entry: malicious, head hunting hits.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Sept 2010
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
NFL training camps, or the return of our gridiron gladiators, and the Little League World Series in not so far-off Williamsport, PA are two late-summer sporting staples. Aside from their similar timing and some good old fashion competition, the two events have little else in common. In the case of the NFL, well-compensated grown men compete in a professional setting at the pinnacle of their sport. The Little League World Series involves 11-13 year old kids from around the globe competing at an early stage of athletics and compensated only by the incredible memories they’ll download and carry from this event for the rest of their lives. Apart from the size, salary and competitive disparities, the most significant difference between pre-season NFL players and the little leaguers is captured by the poignant image of the two going about their business; one’s obviously at work while the other’s at play.
Close your eyes and visualize the Little League World Series. The images that likely come to mind are of kids giving every ounce of themselves for their teams and the overflowing euphoria of victorious teams. Effort, passion and joy are abundant in the young, unburdened athletes that descend upon Williamsport every August. In them we see the unbridled spirit of youth and the essence of amateur athletics. It is a scene that prompts nostalgia for our own youthful athletic experiences and one that we long to see more of from those that play on fall Sunday’s or in any other professional sport.
This expectation, of course, is unrealistic and we know it. First, adults are more reserved creatures than kids. Us big people are so situationally aware and self-evident we almost never get lost in a moment. More importantly, though, the business of professional sports is a serious one with real consequences: see the fine line between employed and unemployed. Pro coaches aren’t looking for cheerleaders; they want players who get with the program and produce. There are no “nice tries”, only success and failure, and not everyone gets a trophy at year’s end. I’m sure most NFL players once had an exuberance for the game rivaling anything we see in those little leaguers and they likely still genuinely enjoy what they do, but the win or lose harshness of NFL football modifies the joy-ride considerably. Stated more broadly, the enjoyment gleaned from anything in life is squelched a bit the minute it transitions from something you want to do to something you feel like you have to do. Still, most players are able to compartmentalize the business side of the game and enjoy the time between the lines - even during practices on a sweltering August afternoon. One player though clearly cannot, and when the angry scowl of this curmudgeon is contrasted with the beaming smiles of the world’s little leaguers, it’s as if the masks of tragedy and comedy have come to life.
Anyone with even a casual eye on the world of sports this summer has some level of awareness of the drama ‘Skins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth has brought on himself and the organization. Beyond his obvious selfishness, combativeness, laziness and apparent inability to consider anything outside of himself, Haynesworth’s existence appears joyless. Looking at his face it’s hard to tell if he’s playing a child’s game for tens of millions of dollars or smelling an old shoe. That is simply disgraceful. He is everything we should endeavor to never be. Maybe one day long ago Haynesworth smiled like a little-leaguer but drop him in Williamsport now and he’d drain the fun from the joint like the Wicked Witch did in Munchkinland.
Just because something you loved becomes a job laden with responsibility doesn’t mean you have to lose your all happiness in doing it; and if you do, maybe it’s time to do something else. It might hurt the bottom line – wins and losses – but I’ll be glad when Haynesworth takes his perpetual frown to some other NFL town, or better yet, out of the NFL altogether. When that happens, it’ll be far from a tragedy.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in June 2010
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A week into the hockey offseason and with an always-crowded sports calendar, the afterglow of the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent victory in the Stanley Cup Finals has noticeably dimmed. Still, while the topic is past peak, the amazing spectacle that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs makes it well worth additional consumption (or so I hope). Conventional wisdom tells us that among the major sports championships, the Stanley Cup is the hardest to capture. Given the length of hockey’s regular season (82 games over 6+ months) and Playoffs (four rounds), the physical nature of the game and the fickle bounces of the puck that often determine victory or defeat (are you feeling me Caps fans?), it’s hard to argue this point. Like no other sport, hockey demands its champions possess an odd mix of hockey skill, raw athleticism, finesse and controlled violence. This year, no team displayed those attributes better than Chicago. With all due respect to the Blackhawks though, the lasting impact of the Cup Playoffs transcends the individual teams and ultimate champion; the Cup Playoffs always carry a deeper meaning, a psychological fossil if you will, that is reinforced year after year.
Beyond those aforementioned attributes of a Stanley Cup champion, there is one other: resolve. The relentlessness of a NHL playoff game is unequaled in professional sports. The pace is most assuredly quicker than baseball and is most similar to basketball. But there’s simply no comparison between the struggle and brutality necessary to score that rare, euphoric or demoralizing goal (depending on which side you’re on) and the relative ease and frequency with which the orange ball tickles the twine. And while football at least matches hockey from a physical perspective, there are no 2nd and 7’s from your own 30 yard line (yawn) in hockey; in hockey it feels like 3rd and goal…constantly. Other sports are more orchestrated and teams switch from offense to defense in an orderly fashion. Possessions are controlled by shot clocks, outs in an inning or a number of downs. Hockey is played with no such parameters. It is more raw and frenetic. It is twelve players with sticks and bad intentions trapped in a walled-off field of battle (sounds like ancient Rome, doesn’t it?). The puck changes possession often and at a moment’s notice, and with each charge up the ice there’s anticipation that your team will score or anxiety that they’ll be scored upon.
Every spring sixteen teams survive the regular season and embark on a quest for the Cup. To realize the dream, the champion must traverse four 7-game series and secure sixteen wins against four different opponents. It is a journey that, when considered in its entirety, must feel overwhelming. The professional hockey player is wired for this stuff though and watching them dissect this sporting mission impossible never gets old. The best do it by closing their minds to the larger context of a series, game or even period. Instead, their focus is on individual shifts. When you really watch the playoff combatants, they get lost in every single shift. They jump over the boards and play with reckless abandon until they’re called off. This is repeated, player-by-player, shift-by-shift, game after game and series after series. In staying shortsighted, the overall challenge never becomes insurmountable.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2010
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
These are perhaps the darkest of days for D.C. sports fans (a jaded and somber group of which I’m a card carrying member). One could argue, without much debate, that the state of sports in D.C. is the worst in the country. Of the cities with all four major professional sports franchises, by my count none has gone longer and only one (Minneapolis) has gone as long as D.C. has without a championship. While that point is noteworthy, and may even conjure up some sympathy from fans of other locales (as if Philly or Dallas fans are capable of such a decidedly human emotion), it only begins to convey the suffering D.C. sports fans are experiencing. Oh no, to truly appreciate just how bad things have been and how completely awful the last year was, you have to go blow by painful blow. It is a tale of nearly unbelievable cruelty. [MSOffice1]
The rightful place to begin the gory account is at the top of the D.C. sports food chain with the ‘Skins. I’m convinced this whole terrible mess began when Joe Gibbs left the first time. In the 17 years since, countless coaches, quarterbacks and glamorous free agents have produced a paltry 2 playoff wins and a bunch of seasons that were over by Thanksgiving. Not even the return of Coach Gibbs himself in 2004 could exorcize the gloom that consumed the franchise after Daniel Snyder became owner. It’s been so demoralizing that it’s difficult to get excited about the arrival of Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan. You almost want to offer them condolences for the unfortunate circumstances that landed each in this athletic wasteland.
And what of our newbies? The arrival of the Nationals in 2005 was exciting but the boys of summer have prompted few smiles in the years since. After a horrendous 2009 season, realistically the team is years away from contending and frankly has only one reason to care (Ryan Zimmerman). The most exciting thing about the franchise is a mythical, rookie pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, that’s yet to occupy the bump in a major league game.
And then you have the Wizards, our lovable (or laughable) losers. For a minute there I thought Gilbert Arenas and his merry men were going to break the franchise’s multi-decade curse. But alas, after Arenas paid homage to the team’s previous name (the Bullets), the Wiz have been dismantled (again) and have returned to more familiar surroundings: annual participants in the NBA’s draft lottery.
Still, until recently my resolve was strong. Even in the face of the embarrassing end to the Jim Zorn experience (his “swinging gate” special teams play will live in infamy), the gut-wrenching conclusion to the Terrapins men’s basketball season and Arenas’ much celebrated return ending with him in a halfway house, I had hope. That hope was riskily hitched to the sexy Washington Capitals who screamed through the regular season and seemed poised to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Believing there was only so much evil in the world, I foolishly thought the Caps would break their historical playoff form and provide a spring to remember. After losing in the first round and blowing another 3-1 series lead, I cannot forget them quickly enough. Oh I rocked the red alright…in the form of my bloodshot eyes and beet-red face at the end of game 7. It was an ending all too familiar.